Can Ryan Hughes get lightning to strike a second time? A month before the Michigan primary, polls showed Hillary Clinton ahead of Bernie Sanders by around 30 points. Yet when the votes were counted, Sanders scored a stunning upset that kept his campaign’s hopes alive and sent Hughes, his Michigan state director, to Pennsylvania, where the most recent poll before the April 26 primary gives Clinton a 25-point lead.
“We’re going to be competitive here,” Hughes promises when we meet for a drink in Philadelphia’s Center City. It’s only his third day in the state, and he’s been constantly on the move, from Scranton—where the campaign opened its first office on March 22—to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and points in between. “Why Scranton?” I ask, since the town is associated more with Joe Biden, who was born and raised there—as was Hillary Clinton’s father, Hugh Rodham—than with the Brooklyn-born Sanders.
“Scranton has been decimated by trade deals,” Hughes replies. “And it reminds me of my hometown: Syracuse, New York—a place where people work factory jobs paying $8 or $9 an hour.” Hughes, who said he got hooked on politics at a public school whose student body was “60 percent black, 20 percent Vietnamese, and 20 percent white,” added: “We want to take the senator’s message to places that haven’t seen a presidential campaign in a long time.”
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The last time McKeesport, Pennsylvania, figured in national politics was 1947, when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon came here to debate whether labor unions had too much power. Today, the effects of a half-century of decline in both union strength and American manufacturing are impossible to ignore.
“So many communities in this state have been left behind. No one’s moving here.” My guide is John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and a candidate for the Senate. Fetterman’s front door is literally across the street from US Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works, where Andrew Carnegie introduced the Bessemer converter into the United States, and which is now the last integrated mill in the Mon Valley.
“This place has one bus line to Pittsburgh—and they tried to cut that last year,” Fetterman continues. As we drive past streets full of abandoned houses and ruined churches, he tells me that Clairton, our next stop, has the worst air quality in the country thanks to an enormous coke plant on the banks of the Monongahela River. “American Steel production was gutted by NAFTA,” Fetterman says. “And if the coke works goes, I don’t know what the folks here will have left.”